Sculpture and the Jews

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We have a problem with art. In Hebrew, art and craft are almost the same word. They come from the same root, which is also the root for the word ‘faith’, from which the English word ‘amen’ is a derivative. Amen simply means ‘(I) have faith’. It is a Hebrew word. And though sculpture of a certain kind was found in the holy temple, it has most been associated with idol worship. And there are specific laws found in the bible prohibiting making reproductions of men or women, animals, or even objects found in nature. Throughout our long history, the plastic arts have been avoided by most of our people and those artists who did produce something, were always the exception to the rule.

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During the 18th century, there was a movement that gained some popularity among our people who were living in Europe, called ‘the enlightenment’, which tried to import some of the cultural standards and the knowledge which had been accepted in the west into our own culture. Despite the opposition of most of the religious leaders of the time, the movement became quite popular, and is credited with easing some of the anti-semitic laws which severely restricted us, as well as promoting greater integration between Jews and non Jews in Europe. It also brought about the modernization of a great many Jewish communities. Scientific and literary texts were translated into Hebrew, and absorbed into our common culture.

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But influenced by cultural prejudices an ingrained attitudes, even the non religious, secular, and highly educated creative souls among us were reluctant to express themselves in the arts. And when they did, they often chose some sort of abstraction or embedded a flaw in the image so as to make it clear that the work could in no way be interpreted as idolatry.

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The concept of one god who could not be represented by any image was in direct opposition to art as understood by other cultures. Sculpture suffered the worst. And to this day, one can find numerous abstract works of sculpture on some of the streets of Jerusalem, but the more realistic, representative pieces are hidden away in private spaces.

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One of the most interesting sculptures in modern day Israel was created as a memorial to the holocaust, and is hidden away in a forest, and completely unknown by most of the citizens of Jerusalem. It presents images from the history of our people and particularly from the holocaust in a series of reliefs found on a large column.

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Aside from the religious injunction prohibiting idolatry, modesty is considered one of the most important virtues. This too, has dissuaded many artists from using nude images. Even so, the restrictions inspired a creative spark as well, and I have seen fascinating two dimensional sculpture, and other variations on the use of three dimensional media by a number of our local artists.

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The conflict between the arts and our traditional view of the world is felt in other areas as well, including music. I hope to write about that one of these days. And because I feel limited regarding how many images to show on a blog post, I might add another post regarding the many ways Jewish artists have tried to express themselves in sculpture while still respecting the prohibitions of our culture.

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67 responses to “Sculpture and the Jews

  1. Thanks for sharing the art. I love public art- even if I don’t understand the artist’s intent.

    • I believe that really good art speaks to each one of us differently, and we can understand it in our own way. Thanks very much for your comment, Lisa.

  2. I love that the words for art and faith are related, and that so many Jewish artists are expressing their creativity through sculpture. These photographs are wonderful, Shimon! Thank you.

    • Actually, Kitty, there are not so many Jewish artists who’ve chosen sculpture to express themselves. But all the same… or even more so because they are few, it is interesting to see how they do it. Thanks.

  3. A very interesting post Shimon. Expressing ourselves through art seems to me to be one of the most basic of human needs. We see art in caves from our distant ancestors. Children love to draw and paint and I think it’s a shame that for an awful lot of us, we lose this means of creativity and expression as we get older and realise, or worse get told, ‘we’re no good’. I wonder what the early teachers of your religion found so threatening, or perhaps disrespecful, in art, more specifically sculpture, that it should be forbidden in this way. I think it’s a great shame.

    • I agree with you about the basic need for artistic expression, Chillbrook. I don’t know though, if the problem that causes children to stop painting when they reach adulthood is because they’ve been told or think they’re no good at it. It seems to me that as adults we have many more standards; an awareness of what others have done. We are able to appreciate and identify with the work of others. But it seems to me that the great limitation is that we think a lot more. We are more self conscious. As for your question on the religious dictates. I think I’ll write more about that one of these days. Thanks very much for your comment.

  4. thank you for sharing this-interesting to see how artists have managed to be creative despite the “prohibition” of idolatry. The memorial to the holocaust is a moving one. Shabbat Shalom

  5. Very good. Thank you for sharing this. I have learned from it.

    • Thank you, Bruce. I often find it hard to decide just how much to say about the conceptual differences between cultures, I’m still a little hung up by this one…

  6. Interesting perspective about art and culture. ,,, but the last pic causes me to display a puzzled look.

    • I guess the artist was so enraptured by the breasts that he didn’t see many other body parts. But if that doesn’t answer your puzzlement, I’d be glad to hear more…

      • After looking at the picture again, is there a whole in the center? If so, it’s a breast-filled donut!

        • No, there’s no hole in the center… but it could be that for the artist, there was the whole in the breasts. For that is the common denominator of all mammals, and on the most basic level, may be a reminder of where we started. Though I can imagine that in some cultures it might be embarrassing to see a naked breast. Here too, there are people who would be embarrassed by a display such as this.

  7. Interesting. Thank you dear Shimon. I haven’t known, love, nia

    • Hi there Nia, as hard as it is to translate, and to express ourselves in a foreign tongue… it is sometimes even more difficult to explain certain concepts which are tied to a specific culture. I feel a need to explain, yet fear that I might offend someone from another culture. It’s a bit like walking on a tightrope. My best wishes to you always.

  8. Yes, it’s something I think about from time to time, the prohibition of making images – although I’m always a bit puzzled that the craftsmen were encouraged to carve cherubim to go above the Ark. Of course the Muslims have the same prohibiton (adopted from Judaism, I imagine). It is possible to make much beautiful and striking art without breaking the prohibition, and it’s fascinating to see how this develops. What is lost, and what is gained, I wonder?

    • Yes, I agree, the cherubim seem to defy explanation. They are the exception to the rule, and all my life I have wondered about that. And yes, the Moslem prohibition is much like that of the Jews… In my study of religion, I’ve learned that we humans have a greater capacity for reaching out towards the ideal than our ability of self discipline. And so we often have to compromise with our creator… sometimes to the point of making deals. Thanks for your comment, Gill.

  9. I loved this post…absolutely fascinating.
    The sculptures that you have shown here are superb – all of them, and I find it so sad to thing that the glorious ‘Memorial to the Holocaust’ is virtually hidden away from the general population in the forest!

    Please, please write more about this…and I will also be most interested to hear how music tastes are affected by the prohibitions of your culture.

    I don’t know if I ever told you this, but when the Jewish Holocaust Museum opened in Washing DC about 25 years ago….I had an amazing experience. As you entered women were ushered in one direction and men in another, and everyone was given an identity card belonging to someone who died in the Holocaust

    The card I received was of a young girl with long blond braids…and she looked just like me at that age – Plus she had the same birthday as me!…..The whole experience was so intense…but having the image of this young girl with me….heightened the experience to another level…One I will never forget.

    Sending love and hoping you have a wonderful weekend…and remember to give Nechame a hug from me. Janet. xx

    • I’m very glad to hear that you find the subject interesting, Janet. It is quite a challenge for me to describe certain behaviors that are based on conceptual beliefs… all the more difficult, because I wouldn’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m a missionary. I think I will continue on this subject this week too.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience when visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washing DC. It sounded like a very intense experience. My best wishes to you too. You are with me in my thoughts almost every day… xxx

      • Good morning dear Shimon – Although a challenge – your description helped me to understand – and that’s what it’s all about. Understanding one another’s cultures and lives.
        Imagine what a world it could be…if that was true for everyone…..
        You are also in my thoughts every day….it’s lovely when strong friendships are nurtured….through whatever medium. Janet. xxx

  10. A beautiful and reflective post. I agree with Janet that it’s a shame the Memorial to the Holocaust is hidden away and perhaps not known to many. Art can be so moving. And thanks Janet for sharing your experience at the Jewish Holocaust Museum. It gave me goosebumps.

    • The memory of the holocaust is so painful to many of the populace here, that that would be reason enough not to put any reminder on the city streets. I suppose we don’t need any reminder. But I think I will have to write more about the problem of the graven image here. Thanks so much for your comment, Olga.

  11. Another compelling post, Shimon. I was aware of the prohibition against idolatry,but didn’t know it was applied to art in the manner that you have described. I find those carved pillars to be especially moving, even with their placement in a forest…but I think there’s a certain sadness that they need to be hidden away.

    • Yes, I agree with you, Scott. I was just saying to Olga, that the people of Jerusalem don’t really need a reminder. We still have members of our society walking around with a number tattooed onto their arm. And it is a very painful subject that no one here has forgotten. But I think I do have to write a bit more about idolatry. It’s an interesting subject. Thanks for the comment.

  12. Appreciate your thoughts and insights of arts, Mr. Shimon. The a large column sculpture that tell the history is stunning and moving.

    • Yes, that is a sculpture that one can look at for a long time… there are so many stories braided together over a very large area… which can’t all be seen from the same vantage point. As you move around the columns you are seeing something different all the time. Just raising your eyes or lowering them, takes you to different stories. When you see one face, another is hidden. As a professional photographer, I learned that one had to take at least three shots to capture a piece of sculpture. But I believe that 30 shots couldn’t cover all that is told in this sculpture, Thanks very much for your comment, Amy.

      • Thank yo so much for explaining it, Mr. Shimon. It does look like, one would need to take multiple photos to just get part of this sculpture. The uniqueness is that each tells the stories.

  13. Fascinating entry Shimon. I guess I had put aside that Biblical statement about idolatry. I can’t imagine any civilization without art, and I wonder if there is reference to creativity in the Bible. In myself, I’ve stated many times that nude, as such, spurs my creativity. I love to see a nude in the outdoors and outdoor settings. It does spur my creativity. I have no idea at all why this is so, but I accept it and enjoy it. I am told by Southern Baptists here that this is wrong. Probably why I’m not a Southern Baptist. 🙂
    Be well

    • There are some very interesting comments on creativity in the bible, but not much on nudity. However one can learn quite a bit from the language itself. For instance the word for clothing comes from the root for cheating or treason. I don’t think I ever had the opportunity to get to know any Southern Baptists, but you never know what will come out when people from different cultures or beliefs meet. I can well understand the inspiration you enjoy from the nude, and I have found that pretty common among my artist friends. But I also have friends here in Jerusalem who would prefer never to see a nude presented in the form of art. Art in itself is something of a puzzle. Thanks for the comment, Bob.

  14. With or without the prohibitions, human have a way to create beauty. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and photos.

    • It’s so wonderful, that we can… can find beauty, and create beauty, and that we have it within us to love one another and the world around us… Thanks so much for your inspiration and for our sharing, yearstricken.

  15. Wonderfully informative post, Shimon. I had no knowledge about any of this. Keep teaching us.

    • So amazing and wonderful, that we are so different from each other and so much the same too… It opens us up to never ending adventures. Thanks, Angeline.

  16. Interesting Shimon. Art usually reflects culture and religious background.

    • Just as languages are different among different peoples, so too, the art can be quite different. But I’ve always felt that art can transcend all the differences, and offer us a connection at the level of our souls.

  17. Such a rich post, Shimon with so much that interests me. “Amen” I know as an affirmation or interjection which means, roughly, “let it be so.” It adds a good bit to know the background of the word in Hebrew.

    It makes perfect sense to me that the Holocaust memorial should be hidden away in the forest, just as people were hidden away during that terrible time. Beyond that, there’s a strong echo of the Psalms, particularly entreaties to “hide me, O Lord,” and descriptions of the Lord as a hiding place.

    What really caught my attention is your comment that artists often “embedded a flaw in the image so as to make it clear that the work could in no way be interpreted as idolatry.” This is common in many cultures. The Navajo, for example, purposefully weave a flaw into each of their rugs, just as potters will include a glaze flaw. In some of the cultures, the concern isn’t quite idolatry, but a recognition that perfection is impossible within the human realm.

    One of the best expressions of this is Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem.” It includes the famous chorus:

    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    I so look forward to your posts. Thank you for this one, particularly.

    • What you say is so true, Linda… there is something very strong and intimate about those ‘hidden away’ places. A message is not necessarily more effective when it’s ‘in our face’. And how moving it is when we find a sign or a message unexpectedly. I found it very interesting to hear about this custom of the Navajo. And thank you for including the verse from Leonard Cohen. His songs often touch the heart, and one hears a yearning for truth in his poetry. Thanks very much for your comment.

      • I listened to the song you linked to… and looked at the beautiful pictures… It was a very beautiful experience even though I had previously been familiar with the song. Thanks again.

  18. Thank you for sharing this! I never realised that such restrictions still existed. I love all of these examples, particularly the memorial. The creativity that the artists used in bypassing the restrictions is quite clever.

    • I have the feeling that when we really have something to say, we don’t have to be so clever to get it out… we just need a little bravery to stand behind it. and to allow ourselves to be exposed. Our backgrounds and our cultures lend color and language to what we have to say, though… and so whispers of love can come out a thousand different ways, despite the fact that the message is the same.

  19. Well I found this utterly fascinating as I hadn’t realised that sculpture was an issue, I was aware of it in the Muslim faith….as always, I learn something here!
    I did find all these images extremely interesting, and now I know why so many are abstract, funnily enough I had often wondered about that!
    What a shame the the holocaust column is hidden away, I found that so compelling, it raised the hairs on my arms.
    I am looking forward to seeing and hearing more and about the music too…..xxx

    • Sometimes, Dina, I go looking for some images to illustrate something I’ve written… and all of a sudden realize that I have more pictures than I can use… and end up wasting a good bit of time, deliberating about what to publish. With words and thoughts it’s even harder. These prohibitions that we have are something like the negative space in a painting. They bring out the most powerful expressions. When I’m not busy tasting forbidden fruit, I’m in awe of the truth that flowers between the boulders of our constraints. Thanks so much for your comment. xxx

  20. Prohibitions always create resistance, boundaries are always stretched, until ‘time’ is called and the tab is recalled, not always very gently. There are generational and societal circularities in what is acceptable and pleasing.

    Subjectivity and art are totally reliant on one another, they are great bedfellows. Apart from religious guidelines about idolatry, some prudish strictures about the human body and sexuality, guidelines to operate by may be useful.

    some very interesting art of many genres emerges from stresses and strains, though I honestly wish that it was not always so.

    • Yes, those circularities you speak of are familiar to me as the swing of the pendulum, from generation to generation… we try to repair the mistakes of our parents and teachers only to see our children recycling the structures that we have built. The pendulum swings this way and that… but the extremes are inherent in the movement, and eventually spell out the passage of time. Truly, menhir, fine art often send shoots from a background of pain and stress, but were we happy and content in paradise, we’d have no need for art anyway. Thanks very much for your comment.

      • I can’t accept your last comment paradise-v-art. I don’t see why art can not, will not, be produced from paradise; yet again a subjective and experiential concept. I do not believe that art forms are reliant on one or even several states of being.

  21. Fascinating,I never thought of the connection between sculpture and idolatry before..we used to have little Mary statues in the rooms of the house,such as certain saints or Mary. I wish we’d not had crucifixes on the wall. So in a way I’d prefer no images but not to the extent that you describe. But here everything imaginable is permitted and I do think we need boundaries. Some of the images are quite whimsical… they are funny and made me laugh.

  22. I was just posting some photos of some little cats made from stone and a camera with the top from a jar of honey as a lens cap as I have lost the cap. I hasten to say that I never pray to these cats… but I suppose I could try it if I feel desperate..Crying, laughing. Sometimes I can’t write.

    • About the top from the honey jar… I just hope you washed it well. And as for the stone cats, I take your word that you didn’t pray to them (much), but who knows what would have happened if I would see them. You know there were some Egyptians that got carried away on that subject…

  23. You’d better not look again!They have this fascination…..

  24. This is a beautiful post, Shimon~thank you for writing it. I am moved to learn that the word for art and for faith are related. I will share my perspective with you, which I hope will not seem disrespectful. I feel such love for God, and appreciation for creation, that I want to respond. When I create a painting it is my way of thanking God for the beauty I find all around me. I am not endeavoring to create something to worship. No. My art is my prayer.

    • For sure, it’s not disrespectful, Melissa. I feel the same way. And I believe that many artists feel this. But I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that there are people who make a likeness of a religious figure or a symbol of luck, or other images… and these are collected and prized. I believe that it is all with good intention. I don’t care to judge such practices or the people who are involved in them. But in my culture… in our society, it is forbidden. Thank you very much for your comment.

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